"Has the president called?" is probably the most frequently repeated question by the fictional female Vice President of the United States (U.S.), Selina Meyer, in season one of Veep (2012), the American TV series by Home Box Office (HBO). The political satire comedy show explores the hardships of the vice president—commonly abbreviated to VP, or Veep—struggling to tread the fine line between Congress and the President of the United States (POTUS). Showrunner Armando Iannucci, armed with his typical snark and scathing wit, offers a show where biting commentary is interspersed between over-the-top portrayals of life in Washington, D.C.
▲ Veep (2012) star Julia Louis-Dreyfus, PROVIDED BY SHUTTERSTOCK
The first season of Veep details the life of Vice President Selina Meyers and her obsequious lackeys as they navigate through the treacherous waters of Washington, D.C. Veep is a tour de force of a comedy, which manages to sneak in laugh-out-loud moments and incisive criticism into virtually every scene and demonstrates that Iannucci’s predilection for dry and sharp-witted commentary has not run out of steam yet. Fans of Iannucci’s previous hits—The Thick of It (2005) and In the Loop (2009)—are in for more of the same; only this one delves deeper. It outlines the sophisticated façade of American politics, using comedy to ridicule its corrupt nature in the most direct way possible.
The show wisely avoids focusing on the affected surface of American politics, all smiles and handshakes, and instead opts to peek behind the curtains, divulging the behind-thescenes intrigue and ugliness of Washington in all its glory. Meyers is frequently seen hollering at her staff or offhandedly insulting them; the staff, in turn, often disparage and blatantly lie to each other to get into Meyers’ good graces. By not shying away from the staff members’ pathetic and often malicious attempts at inching closer to the vice president and thus, from their perspective, to power, Veep reveals the true nature of Washington, D.C.: a couple of fancy buildings teeming with unrepentant sycophants.
Veep is also interested in the duality of American politics, in the contrast between the act and the person. Nowhere is this strategy more effective than in scenes that juxtapose Meyers’ amicable gestures toward high-ranking politicians and congressmen against the venomous bile that she spews at them. In one standout scene, Meyers visits a convention where a group of people enthusiastically greet the vice president; Meyers puts on a vivacious smile while dismissing these men and women as “too old to vote,” asking whether they will “live long enough to make it to election day.” In later episodes, Meyers seemingly endorses a rival for governor before a large crowd while simultaneously mouthing insults at him.
The thrust of the first season is Meyers’ attempts to get a task force for Clean Jobs, a commission that places sanctions on polluters and relieves taxes on non-polluters, off the ground. Tellingly, when the task force is seemingly greenlit by Congress, her first reaction is to shout, “That is so good for me!” Only after her Chief of Staff Amy reminds her that she is the vice president does Meyers half-heartedly add, “and for the country.” This small exchange perfectly encapsulates the self-serving politics of Washington, D.C., and the rest of the series is infused with similarly astute observations.
Unfortunately for Meyers, her Clean Jobs bill ends up conflicting with POTUS’s own plan to buoy the economy back on track, and her efforts are tossed out of the window without a second glance. This is one of the many instances where the show mines comedic material out of the tragedy of the vice president. Iannucci shrewdly points out that the vice president is the closest person to the most powerful person in the world, POTUS, but wields no real power at all and is repeatedly thrown under the bus by congressmen and the president alike. Constantly asking if the president has called (and of course, he has not called) underlines Meyers’ role as a Veep—a weakling minister desperately begging for a seat at the adults’ table.
Over the course of the first season, and again throughout the later seasons, Iannucci implies that the position of vice president embodies the transient and empty essence of power in American politics. A once-powerful senator is demoted to a congressional puppet; a rising presidential candidate slinks back to his corner of the Senate after he loses the election. Other shows detailing the minutiae of Washington politics such as House of Cards (2013) or The West Wing (1999) shine the spotlight on the lives of presidents and their crusades to retain power. As the vice president, however, Meyers is both immensely powerful and utterly un-influential, and as such Veep manages to highlight the rise and fall of a politician at the same time without actually having Meyers gain and lose power.
Just because Veep’s political aspects stand out does not mean that its other elements are not up to par. Iannucci peppers each episode with wildly inventive insults comprised of metaphors, profanities and strange descriptions. The performers bounce off each other very well, with each actor or actress imbuing their character with a unique comedic sensibility that complements other characters perfectly; there is the token workaholic, the obnoxious one, the snake, the bumbling idiot, the meek child, and other archetypes that fill this show to its brim with laughter.
With the departure of Iannucci after season four, many were apprehensive about whether the new showrunner David Mandel could step into Iannucci’s shoes. Such worries turned out to be unwarranted when Mandel continued to emulate Iannucci’s brand of humor while bringing his own ideas to the table. The fifth and sixth season of the show detail Meyers’ failed presidential bid, a subject full of comedic potential and something that takes Veep in a new, unexplored direction.
▲ A cast member in front of Veep's poster, PROVIDED BY SHUTTERSTOCK
Veep has received critical acclaim, and has won several major awards. It has been nominated six years in a row for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series, winning the award for its fourth, fifth, and sixth seasons. Louis-Dreyfus' performance as Selina Meyer has won her six consecutive Primetime Emmy Awards and two Screen Actors Guild Awards, among others. While a critically acclaimed show i s not always tantamount to a superlative or even well-constructed one, such praise indicates that many people empathize with Veep’s hilarious critique of Washington politics. In light of the blunders of the Trump administration, Veep’s central idea is perhaps more timely than it has ever been; behind every façade is an ugly secret, and even the gregarious vice president can be entrapped in her own vices.